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Soviet and American officials watched the destruction of the first U.S. cruise missile under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and looked to future arms control pacts.

"The INF treaty is one of the most critical steps in the direction of ending the Cold War," army Maj. Gen. Vladimir Medvedev, head of the Soviet on-site inspection agency, said through an interpreter Tuesday. "What we saw today was a critical step in that direction."I think it's very important for our people to feel more secure, and I think such acts will make us much closer," Medvedev said after U.S. military personnel used hand-held power saws and an arc torch to slice up the first missile and its protective canister.

U.S. officials hoped to finish destroying 41 cruise missiles and 41 canisters, as well as seven mobile launchers, within a few days at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

"On-site inspections will result in more contacts between the two (countries') militaries, more knowledge and hopefully more understanding," said Medvedev's U.S. counterpart, Brig. Gen. Roland Lajoie. "And this, in turn, should generate more confidence and predictability in our relations."

Lajoie said there has been far less tension than expected in the 115 U.S. inspections of Soviet sites spelled out in the missile treaty and 31 inspections of U.S. sites by Soviets. He said there has been "a lot of flexibility and an amazing amount of good will on both sides."

Medvedev and 10 other Soviet inspectors watched Tuesday as workers made two full-length cuts in the first 23-foot aluminum canister with power saws, then sliced the first missile the same way with saws and a torch. The missile and the canister split in half as they were raised by a forklift.

The workers and inspectors then turned their attention to a 56-foot, 78,000-pound mobile launcher.

The missile, a 21-foot weapon built in 1986 by McDonnell-Douglas Astronautics Co., was flight tested at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and deployed at an Air Force station in Sicily before being shipped to Davis-Monthan in February.

Nuclear warheads have been removed from each of the weapons slated for destruction, then turned over to the Energy Department, said Capt. Kendell Pease, a spokesman for the Defense Department's On-Site Inspection Agency.

Fuel and guidance equipment have also been removed from each weapon before dismantling, Pease added.